• September 17, 2014

Lecturer's Arrest in the Emirates Stirs Debate Over Academic Freedom in the Middle East

The recent detention of a Sorbonne lecturer in the United Arab Emirates has rekindled the debate over the nature of academic freedom at Western institutions in the Persian Gulf region and the political impact those institutions, especially the high-profile new campus of New York University in Abu Dhabi, will have.

The arrest of Nasser bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne) who has participated in the Doha Debates, a respected regional political forum, leaves observers asking what freedoms the academics working at new Western branch campuses in the emirates will enjoy. "Are professors only protected in the 90 minutes when they are giving seminars, and after that they are fair game?" asks Samer Muscati, a researcher on the United Arab Emirates for Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch and the New York chapter of the American Association of University Professors have called on the New York University administration to publicly ask for the release of Mr. bin Ghaith and three other political activists who have been detained. The latest arrest occurred on Friday, according to a group known as the Gulf Discussion Forum.

"As the foreign university with the largest and most visible presence in the U.A.E., the NYU administration should speak out firmly against these violations of basic rights," said a letter signed by the leaders of the New York chapter of the American Association of University Professors, including Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.

Josh Taylor, a spokesman for NYU Abu Dhabi, said in an e-mail message that the administration will stay silent on the arrests. "We believe that we can have a far greater impact on creating a more informed, responsible, and just world, by creating powerful centers of ideas, discourse, and critical thinking, than by simply firing off a press release," Mr. Taylor wrote.

In the emirates, Human Rights Watch has focused on the rights of migrant laborers and freedom of expression on Saadiyat Island, the site where Abu Dhabi hopes to create a regional cultural center with branches of the Guggenheim Museum, the Louvre, and New York University "We're hoping it will be a human-rights benchmark for institutions not just in the emirates but in the gulf," said Mr. Muscati.

But Mr. Taylor says that the human-rights campaign has its sights set on an inappropriate target: "We're not sure what to make of it when an outside group tries to insist on setting a particular political agenda for an independent institution of higher learning."

Muted Dissent

Protesters have not been appearing in front of television cameras in the United Arab Emirates as they have been in many other Middle Eastern countries. But online discussion of increased political openness, wider participation in the government, and the need for economic and judiciary reforms has increased. (Political parties do not exist in the emirates, and there are no elections.) Two petitions calling for free elections and parliamentary democracy have circulated online, one in March and another one in early April, with the first one signed by 133 local academics, lawyers, and activists.

"Even though there are no protests in the streets," Mr. Muscati said, "We are seeing an unprecedented movement for reform."

The online activity is being met with crackdowns: In past months Human Rights Watch says authorities have blocked access to localnewsuae.com, a portal with articles and blog posts, and blocked access to the Facebook and Twitter pages of an emirates-focused online discussion forum, uaehewar.net.

As is often the case in the United Arab Emirates, who is doing what, and why, can be difficult to discern. Little can be found out about the detention of Mr. bin Ghaith, including whether the government has filed specific charges, what kind of due process will be followed, and if he will be allowed legal representation.

"It's very difficult to get information on this," says Mr. Muscati. "From what we understand, he is being held in Abu Dhabi and being interrogated there without a lawyer."

The 2010 human-rights report on the United Arab Emirates by the U.S. State Department, filed with Congress this month, states that "arbitrary and incommunicado detention remained a problem."

The Sorbonne's Web sites are silent about the arrest, and e-mail messages from The Chronicle to communication offices at the Paris and the Abu Dhabi campuses of the Sorbonne were not answered.

Mr. bin Ghaith has argued for a more-effective judiciary system in the emirates that could cope with corporate malpractice, with some of his criticism clearly directed toward those investors and corporations behind the financial crisis in Dubai, one of the emirates. In the Doha Debates in 2009, however, he spoke against the motion that "Dubai is a bad idea," saying that although mistakes had been made during Dubai's construction boom, a "self-correcting mechanism" was in place.

Gains vs. Losses

At New York University's home campus around Washington Square, critics of the Abu Dhabi campus said the arrests showed that the project was a mistake to begin with. "Who thought up the idea of putting a college campus full of young liberals in one of the most unstable regions of the world?" said one student commenting on an article on NYU Local, a student-run blog.

A student at the Abu Dhabi campus commenting on the same article, identified as Nicole, wrote, "The student body doesn't feel that our academic freedom is in jeopardy; however, it has made everyone more aware of the boundaries between the academic community of Abu Dhabi and the public at large."

Paulo Lemos Horta, an assistant professor of literature at the Abu Dhabi campus, said in an interview that he thought his efforts at the new campus were worthwhile and that he had not felt any difference between the freedoms he had as a professor in Abu Dhabi and those he had in his last job at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. "I feel like the most important thing is the work we can do within the institution," he said. "It is unclear how it would be more helpful for us to not be here than to be here. We are training a generation of students around the world in the tradition of liberal arts and academic freedom. Here they are at a coed institution, and there is no limit on what they can say."

Speaking from the Madrid airport, Mr. Horta said, "Here, people enjoy rights that they don't have in the U.S. such as gay marriage. Does that mean you don't move to the U.S. or engage in the U.S.?"

Islands of academic freedom like NYU Abu Dhabi are certainly not new in the Middle East. The American University in Cairo, established in 1919, is probably the oldest example, with its on-campus events providing a forum for political discussion that did not exist elsewhere in Egypt for many years. At the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Saudi Arabia, women are not required to cover themselves up and are allowed to drive, two freedoms they do not have elsewhere in the country.

In the emirates, Mr. Ross of NYU notes that "faculty and students at NYU Abu Dhabi have immeasurably more rights than longtime citizens of Abu Dhabi." Even arguments for academic freedom, he said, risk straying into illogical territory. The idea, for instance, that only academics should be protected, he says, is "not a very desirable argument for universities to be making."

He and others wonder if the free-speech rights experienced by expatriate artists and academics in Abu Dhabi will someday be enjoyed by others there. "It's good if some parts of the country have this freedom," says Mr. Muscati. "The hope is it will spread. It's not clear how."

 

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